Looking out over the tranquil expanse of Portland Harbour on a pleasant early autumn day, it’s difficult to picture it as the busy naval port it once was. These days you’re as likely to see a cruise ship – or a windsurfer – as a naval vessel, although they still have a presence. There are many reminders of this interesting history, particularly from the two world wars – indeed, my own house stands on the site of a former torpedo factory.

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With these thoughts in mind, I wrote the following wartime story – pure fiction, I hasten to add. It made the long list of the Exeter Flash competition, and, being a seagoing tale, I’d like to share it on this blog:

Waiting for Ferret

When the calm fell, they became fearful. As the wind slowed, faltered and ceased they became ever more aware of the sounds they made – the sounds that announced their presence and progress. They could hear each other, properly, for the first time. It was unnerving, and people began to whisper and pad about in silence. They wondered who was listening.

Message from Tantalus: Majestic – reduce speed; Ethel J, Oceania, London Pride and Ringstead – hold your position; Ferret – do keep up.

“She’s doing her best,” whispered her engineer, shaking his head, sadly. “Poor old girl.”

But in the calm of the night they lost her – left far behind, toiling in the wake of her companions and her guardian.

Message from Tantalus: best speed, all. Do not wait for Ferret.

When the submarine struck, HMS Tantalus was sunk by the first torpedo, and the convoy, scattering in panic, were left unprotected and thus picked off one by one in a leisurely way. Out of sight, over the horizon, the little freighter Ferret escaped the attack. But she heard the explosions, felt the terrible vibrations through the very water.

“More haste, less speed,” whispered her engineer, shaking his head sadly. “Let’s hope we can pick some o’ them poor beggars up.”

And the Ferret, the old, slow Ferret, steamed on in her steady way, all alone, to see what she could do to help. To the men waiting in the water, she was the most welcome sight in all the world.

 

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